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England v Ireland: Any kind of victory will do, insists Schmidt as Six Nations showdown looms

 

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

Joe Schmidt is asked if he is daring to dream of what may come tomorrow and soon he is talking of nightmares.

The Ireland coach described himself as a "glass half-full" character, but there is a fear of failure at the back of his mind, a worry that if his Six Nations champions do not bring their A game to Twickenham that they'll be blown away.

And yet, amid the fretting, there was a warning too for Eddie Jones and his side, an assessment of the myth of the backlash and how far emotion can take you at the top level.

Tomorrow's game is a clash between the world's second and third best teams, the margins will be as fine as ever and the stakes are high.

Only the All Blacks arrive at Twickenham as favourites, but Schmidt's side have earned their right to go to London with expectation. Handling it is the next step.

He has reason to be confident in his team after making just one tactical change from the side that beat Scotland, rotating Iain Henderson in for Devin Toner, while Jones has hit the panic button and changed seven from his side's loss to France.

His rival is immersed in a crisis largely of his own making; by all accounts he was in tetchy form at his own team announcement after his video nasty. In contrast, team Ireland are able to rise above.

Even the presence of assistant ref Marius van der Westhuizen at England's Tuesday training session was greeted with mere surprise, although World Rugby later stood him down in the interests of fair play.

Unsurprisingly, Schmidt largely steered clear of all of the furores that surrounded tomorrow's opponents and the match-day officials, offering an "I haven't really read them" response to Jones' ill-judged comments about Ireland and Wales.

Instead, his focus was on the task and the prize at stake.

"I don't know about the players, but I would be very much a glass half-full person," he said. "I get excited about the group we have and how hard we work, but I'd be very balanced from the perspective of being a pragmatist at the same time.

"There is no point in dreaming beyond Saturday, because Saturday is a finite point for us where a number of things have to happen and go right.

"I wouldn't say that you can control that emotional roller-coaster that preparing a high-level sports team kind of engenders, because there are times when you inevitably imagine the worst-case scenario.

"Worst-case scenario is that England hit the ground running and win with a bit to spare. That would be a bit of a crushing scenario. It would be a crushing way for us to finish a year of being unbeaten.

"A potential opportunity that has only been done twice before, I'd be more motivated and scared by that than thinking about how fantastic it would be to do something that would be another step for this group into stretching themselves beyond what they've done before."

Schmidt made a passing, pointed reference to TV3 pundit Matt Williams' assessment of his side as "boring", but he accepted that a win of any hue would do against the reigning champions.

"I don't think any of the team would care if it was 3-0," he conceded. "I don't think we would be uninspired by a 3-0 victory, we know what's at stake.

"And what's at stake is a fantastic opportunity, not just to achieve a Grand Slam, but to go a year unbeaten. We wouldn't have dreamed of that this time last year.

"That would be special for us in all sorts of ways, because of the Championship and what is at stake."

The boring tag must be incongruous to a coach whose team has scored 17 tries in their last three games to secure a third title in five seasons. They have dominated possession and territory in all of their games and will look to be as positive as possible from the off.

He knows that an English backlash is coming. He has too much respect for the 2016 and 2017 champions to read too much into their recent dip.

But he also warned that passion can only get a team so far.

"Your passion and emotion drives you forward. It makes you as determined as you can be," he said. "But it has a lifespan in a match, there's got to be something that's contagious about getting you further motivated during a game.

"We were lucky last year, because it was 3-3, we went up 10-3 and that first try was the only try of the match in the end. Getting that try in the first quarter, that sparked a bit of confidence and determination."

On top of all that, he reckons good old good fortune will also play a part.

"Not only does it have to be a really good performance," he said. "Even Sir Alex Ferguson said, 'You want to put all those good things together and they you just need an ounce of luck when it comes to those really big games'."

Belfast Telegraph

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